After Microbes Die, What Happens to Their Corpses?

After Microbes Die, What Happens to Their Corpses?
AP Photo/Mario Rivera
After Microbes Die, What Happens to Their Corpses?
AP Photo/Mario Rivera
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When a deceased whale washes up onshore or a deer dies in the woods, decomposers rush in to clean up the remains. Specifically, fungi and bacteria absorb the available nutrients via chemical and biological means, breaking down the creature's matter in the process. But what decomposes these microscopic decomposers?

Redirecting this question closer to home, there are as many as a trillion bacteria inhabiting the skin of an adult human. These single-celled microorganisms don't live forever, of course, so what happens to their corpses? Clearly, they don't pile up over the years, gradually transforming humans into walking and talking reservoirs of bacterial husks. So where do they go?

The answer: They get recycled. Unlike larger organisms, when single-celled organisms die, they usually undergo a process called lysis, in which the cell membrane disintegrates. Once ruptured, the bacterium's innards – the cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA – all spill out. Where once there was a bacterium, there is now a pile of goo composed of precious materials like amino acids, DNA, lipids, and proteins – a veritable feast! Nearby bacteria swoop in to consume it.

Microbiologist James Weiss captured a single-celled microbe called Blepharisma lysing in spectacular detail.

"I don't know why this one died but how it dissolves to nothingness just broke my heart. Big or small, life is fragile," he said of the video.

James, and all of us, can rest assured knowing that the remains of this particular Blepharisma surely sustained many other tiny life forms.

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